News Analysis

Friday 29 August 2014

Talking about Beyonce's thighs is doing us a fat lot of good

Deirdre Cowman

Published 28/12/2013 | 02:30

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Beyonce’s thighs are a popular topic of ‘fat talk’.

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a chat that gets derailed by a discussion of Beyonce's thighs or Nicole Scherzinger's waist or some other celebrity body part?

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Have you ever found yourself debating whether or not you could get away with wearing the latest trend because of your wobbly arms or large behind?

Have you ever spent 20 minutes reassuring a friend that they're not an enormous blob-monster while passionately trying to convince them that you are the fattest, most disgusting yoke that anybody has ever laid eyes on?

If any of these conversations ring a bell, then you may already be familiar with 'fat talk'.

It is a term that psychologists use to describe those familiar conversations about appearance, body shape, dieting techniques and the need to lose weight. These conversations have become a standard part of how we relate to one another.

A study conducted in the US in 2011 by Salt and Engeln-Maddox explored the frequency, content and impact of fat talk conversations in a sample of female college students.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they reported that the most common response to fat talk was denial that the friend was fat and this typically leads to a back-and-forth conversation where each party denies the other is fat while claiming to be fat themselves.

Fat talk conversations also involve social comparisons to other individuals who are perceived to be closer to an ideal body shape or size. While the majority of research on this phenomenon involves young women, reality shows such as 'Jersey Shore', 'Made in Chelsea' and 'Tallafornia' provide plenty of anecdotal evidence of similar appearance-based discussions involving men.

It is also interesting to note that these conversations are not restricted to those who are overweight, but are also commonplace to individuals in all weight categories. However, research by Denise Martz and colleagues suggests that heavier women feel under greater pressure to join in fat talk initiated by others.

You might ask, where is the harm in fat talk? Several studies indicate that far from being trivial or inconsequential, engaging in and even hearing fat talk is associated with body dissatisfaction and guilt.

Body dissatisfaction is associated with low self-esteem, unhealthy weight control practices and eating disorders. Research suggests that the harmful impact of fat talk is reduced if the fat talk is challenged.

Salt and Engeln-Maddox reported that challenging self-deprecating fat talk may actually protect those who hear it from the harmful consequences associated with it.

It is important to note that challenging fat talk does not just mean denying that the person is fat, but explicitly criticising the tendency to engage in these conversations.

Indeed this idea has been successfully promoted in public awareness campaigns such as the annual Fat Talk Free week which has developed from sorority-based eating disorder prevention programmes in the US. Why not give it a go and pledge to end fat talk this year?

The next time you feel the urge to tell your friend that you are 'soooo fat' or you find yourself in a conversation about the current state of a pop idol's tummy, remember to question the absurdity of it all and politely change the conversation. It could be a resolution that has an impact not only on yourself, but on the people around you.

Check out the Psychological Society of Ireland's (PSI) 40 practical tips for mental health, wellbeing and prosperity on its website.

The PSI tips are practical and action based, giving people things that they can do to improve their mental wellbeing, so hopefully you'll find lots of inspiration for new year's resolutions.

The tips include getting active, doing what you love, exercising your brain, working on developing different ways of coping with difficult times and, of course, cutting out fat talk.

Dr Deirdre Cowman is a member of the Psychological Society of Ireland and lecturer at All Hallows College, Dublin

Irish Independent

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